Solution to The Pink Elephant in the Room

Nobody likes to give bad news. But sometimes, that is exactly what is needed, as long as it is honest feedback. A true leader has the courage to say what is needed, even when that may be the last thing you want to do.

Who are you serving?

While leaders may think that they are being a “nice guy” by not giving someone who isn’t performing well the bad news, in reality they are only making things worse.

Unless you address the problem with the individuals in question, you are doing a disservice to the individual, to yourself, and to the overall organization.

The Pink Elephant Syndrome

A real world scenario

The cascading impact of Leaders who don’t address performance issues is something that I call the Pink Elephant syndrome. While this may sound like an unbelievable story, it is a very real set of circumstances that took place several years ago.

Steve (not his real name) was a Vice President of Marketing at a mid-sized company. Steve was a nice guy who enjoyed his VP title, which he had specifically negotiated to get. Steve was someone who thought more of his abilities than perhaps his track record would merit. His marketing campaigns frequently didn’t generate the kind of increased returns that they were expected to produce. Most of them managed to just keep the current customer base while the competition was making inroads into the market space.

In addition, his staff couldn’t stand working for him. They worked long hours and repeatedly had to make last-minute changes to marketing campaigns. Rarely did those last minute changes result in additional customer orders. Of course, Steve didn’t work late when his staff did. He would give the direction and either go home, or go back to his office, where it was common to see him sleeping at his desk.

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Steve reported to the owner of the company, who never addressed Steve’s job performance, his poor team morale, or his tendency to sleep at his desk. The owner didn’t want to “be the bad guy.” So, these things just kept going along, year after year, in exactly the same way. Meanwhile, Steve kept getting annual raises and was told “keep up the good work.”

Changes are sometimes harsh

Then the company was sold. New owners came in and immediately gave Steve feedback that he wasn’t cutting it. While he had marketing experience, he wasn’t performing at the level expected of a Vice President of Marketing. They held him accountable for the results of his marketing campaigns. They told him that it would no longer be acceptable to find him asleep at his desk. Before long, he was on a performance plan that demanded results: or else.

I think you can see where this is going. Within a year, Steve was let go. But, the story doesn’t stop there. Unfortunately, during his time as a Marketing VP, he had also become quite accustomed to the salary of a Marketing VP. Steve had an extremely difficult time finding another job. When he applied for other Marketing VP jobs, it became clear that he really didn’t have the skills necessary for a job at that level and certainly at that salary. He stayed unemployed for over a year.

As a Leader, It’s not about you. It’s about them.

Admittedly, Steve had a role to play in it because he had very little self awareness and did little to improve himself professionally, which is one of the hallmarks of a good leader. But, I would submit to you that the company owner, who never gave Steve the feedback, is just as responsible.

As a leader, if you see someone isn’t performing well, and you don’t address it with them, then who is really at fault?

You see the problem. You know what needs to change. As a leader, it is your responsibility to fix the problem.

  • Will the feedback make you unpopular? Perhaps.
  • Will the feedback seem harsh? Maybe, depending on how you deliver it.

But which is worse, giving someone honest feedback that makes them a better performer for you and your organization, or not giving them any feedback and leave them unemployed and wondering, “How things could have gotten so bad?”

As a leader, it’s not about you. It’s about people you are leading. You are there to get results from your people and to make them stronger contributors. If, at times that makes you unpopular or seem like the heavy, so be it.

If you want to lead the orchestra, you are going to have to turn your back on the crowd.

Promise yourself and your people, that you won’t let the Pink Elephant Syndrome happen to anyone you work with.  There is one way to deal with the Pink Elephant Syndrome: that is to deal with it.

Are you facing the Pink Elephant Syndrome? Is there some difficult feedback that you should be giving? What could happen if this person never hears the feedback you are avoiding? Better yet, how much better could things be if the person you have in mind improves the things you haven’t told them?

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David Hasenbalg is President and COO of Customized Solutions, LLC
He helps individuals and organizations achieve their objectives and their potential

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3 responses to “Solution to The Pink Elephant in the Room

  1. Yes I agree! Leaders are meant to be the mirrors to their team. Leaders become effective if they help their team see the reality! (The things that really are, not you meant it to be)

    The way you show reality can vary. You can tell it brutally or you can tell it emphatically.

    The most effective way is when you help your subordinate discover the reality on his own. This requires cool courage and commitment.


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